Whatever is the opposite of a beauty junky, I’m it. Fifty options of beige and brown for my face and eyes agitate rather than exhilarate, like the angsty process of distilling a million swatches down to that single perfect shade of white paint. I shop for makeup out of dire need, not for fun.
Yet I experienced one of my most memorable shopping moments at a Sephora. Two Christmases ago, on the hunt for a fragrance for a 13-year-old girl, I selected something youthful and headed for checkout. “Would you like it monogrammed?” a woman asked, motioning toward an etching machine. When I said that I didn’t know the girl’s initials, only her first name, Amanda, the woman looked quizzical until I told her that I’d taken the girl’s ornament from an angel tree.
“Let’s do ‘Amanda,’” she said. The no-charge process was tedious (at least to an impatient type), starting with expert removal of the cellophane covering the box, to be restored at the end of the process. The bottle then went under the machine needle, forming each letter deliberately and slowly. With the last curve of the last “a” complete, the woman wasn’t satisfied with the depth of relief. Despite a packed store and a line forming behind me, she retraced the name a second time and a third, ensuring that Amanda would receive at least one perfect Christmas gift.
Last week I had the opportunity to sit in on an otherwise closed, in-house session at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton headquarters in New York. The occasion: the signing by the group’s U.S.-based maisons of the U.N. Standards of Conduct for Business, which fights discrimination against LGBTQ people. As reported, the group’s executive committee and European maisons signed the document in March.
So, what’s the Amanda connection? Nothing direct, as far as I know. But early in the program, a brief video was screened. “Sephora Saved Our Son” tells of how CJ, a boy enamored of makeup and other pretty things, suddenly in fifth grade became a victim of in-school bullying, even by his former best friend. He found a safe haven — friends, a community — at Sephora when he started to attend makeup classes. After the video ran, CJ, now 12, and his parents were introduced. His mother talked about how much finding a place where he can be himself and feel welcomed and respected has meant to CJ. She said the family wants to “give back” to Sephora.
To hear a mother invoke those words so personally in reference to the famous global makeup retailer under the umbrella of the mega luxury group owned by the third-richest man in the world startled. I immediately thought of the woman who etched Amanda’s name so painstakingly into the fragrance bottle to make her Christmas gift special. Until that moment, I’d thought of her as a remarkably kindhearted individual, and Sephora, extremely lucky to have her. After hearing CJ’s story, I thought that perhaps she’s a kindhearted individual of a sort sought out by Sephora to live its corporate culture on the selling floor.
At a moment when celebrating and marketing toward the LGBTQ community is all the rage, that mental line I drew between CJ and Amanda, and the fact that this wasn’t a press event, dissolved any skepticism I may have had going in about this perhaps being a case of feel-good corporate grandstanding.
The event, held in the company’s Magic Room, was the brainchild of Chantal Gaemperle, the group’s executive vice president of human resources and synergies. Anyone inclined to think of h.r. as the corporate manifestation of the Grim Reaper (a lot of people, I think) should spend five minutes with this woman. She sells you on her belief that luxury has a higher purpose than merely pushing expensive merch, and that h.r. is about more than hiring and firing. “That’s the magic of h.r. That’s why I love my job — because you can see sometimes how you can help people grow, how you can help people feel a little bit better, how you can help probably give them an assignment that will match their strengths,” she said during a follow-up conversation.
Gaemperle wanted to plan an activity around the U.S. signing of the standards to telegraph the importance of the moment and the message to LVMH’s employees. “LVMH has derived its success from diverse perspectives. Not only in terms of the different businesses we have, but also the backgrounds of our talents, she said. “You don’t only look at the creative and the ceo.…It’s [all] talent-dependent, and so diversity is the DNA.…If we have a culture in which people feel that they are respected, understood and valued for who they are, and that as an organization we can capitalize on their unique differences — you put that together and you have the recipe for success.”
Two hundred employees from presidents to assistants, were invited from the six U.S.-based maisons — Belvedere, Benefit, Fresh, Kendo, Marc Jacobs and Starboard. They took in a compelling, swiftly moving program that opened with a welcome from Anish Melwani, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Inc., the group’s North American subsidiary. “In this incredibly polarized [political] context, we all as leaders have an important choice to make,” Melwani said. “But it’s not a choice of left versus right, Democrat or Republican, MAGA or progressive. It’s a choice of the past or the future.”
That that future must include a diverse workforce including LGBTQ people who feel free to be themselves was the overriding message, covering not only what LVMH as a group and its maisons are doing, but what they can do going forward. One initiative, by year’s end the group will launch a worldwide training program Unconscious Bias and Inclusive Leadership for all executives and managers.
“Employees who feel that they can’t be themselves at work, they won’t fully engage as part of the team.…So advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace is essential,” Melwani said, laying out four elements essential in fostering workplace inclusion: establishing measurable criteria “because what gets measured gets managed”; training, “because policies do not equal practice”; recruiting, and organizational behaviors. “It’s how we all behave every day at work that will make a difference,” he said.
Marc Jacobs then gave the keynote address, infusing the agenda with some humor. Aware that he was speaking to a mostly business-oriented group, he noted that his side and theirs speak different languages. “We creatives are from Earth and corporates are from Mars,” Jacobs said, to a round of laughter. “But it’s all about perspective and the way you look at things. So, we promise not to judge you on your sometimes ill-fitting suits, poor taste in neckties, or uptight sartorial dress. And please don’t judge us on our flamboyant footwear, our piercings, tattoos, and eclectic, eccentric and often ironic good taste.
“Of course, I’m joking…” Jacobs continued. “Nothing good has ever come through judging people based on how they look or what they do in the bedroom and who they choose to love.”
He said then raised an important issue. Most of the speakers suggested (or perhaps I inferred from their words) that LGBTQ people are or should be “out” in the workplace, or at least, that should be the goal. Jacobs thinks otherwise and said so. “The decision to share that I am gay is my choice. And I am grateful that I have never experienced discrimination based on my openness in the workplace,” he said. “Now more than ever, it is better to ask than assume how people wish to be addressed, what pronouns they use or how they identify. However, no one should ever be required to share private information about their sexual identity and orientation or be discriminated against for it.”
Asked about Jacobs’ comment later, Gaemperle said, “I think that when it’s a matter of choice it’s OK, when you are able to say I choose not to. But sometimes you choose not to, not because of your own will but because you are afraid, because you will be rejected, because there will be negative consequences. That’s the difference, and it’s a big difference.”
Two panel discussions followed Jacobs’ address. The first, on brand initiatives and partnerships, was introduced by Chris de Lapuente, chairman and ceo of LVMH Perfumes and Cosmetics and Sephora Global, who flew in in the morning to attend, and left that evening. He has reason to feel proud; in terms of outreach to the LGBTQ community, beauty brands are leading the way within LVMH. For the first panel, executives from Sephora and Makeup Forever shared the stage with Gregory Jones, corporate engagement officer at Hetrick-Martin Institute, a New York-based LGBTQ youth services organization.
The beauty-dominated panel led moderator Hayden Majajas, the newly arrived (as of May) head of diversity and inclusion, to go “a bit controversial,” he said. “We’re sitting here surrounded by Sephora hearing these amazing stories [and Make Up For Ever]. I’m not seeing Dior here or maybe some other brands. Is it just makeup companies who are doing big things out there?”
While the LVMH-ers didn’t answer directly, later, when I posed the question to Gaemperle, she suggested that beauty’s leadership role is born of a long-standing relationship. “Because of the products and the connections to those communities, probably It’s more natural to [the beauty brands],” she said, while noting that awareness and initiatives are intensifying throughout the group.
Majajas talked about product-driven programs around Pride, the pluses and minuses, but mostly focused on broader initiatives. Corrie Conrad, Sephora’s vice president of social impact, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, said when developing makeup classes such as those CJ enjoys, “we kind of asked ourselves as we were starting our social impact initiatives how we might use those classes for the greater good of our communities.” One answer: the launch last year of Bold Beauty for the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community.
Christina Jefferson, the brand’s manager of diversity and inclusion, helped to create that class, but digressed from its consumer focus to the workforce. “Something that I think we’re really proud of as a company is that we are actually employing these people,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. We can give money, but we also need to give opportunity.”
Margaret Robinson, executive director of public relations and influencer marketing at Make Up For Ever, and Jones spoke about a video they did featuring Hetrick-Martin clients in sessions with the brand’s artists. “For our young people to have the opportunity to come and be the face of a campaign, to be in a video for a campaign, is absolutely incredible,” Jones said. “[It] builds so much awareness, and tells a young person who is questioning their identity or coming to a point of discovering and understanding their identity, that, ‘I can do this, too. This is an industry that has always embraced me. These are opportunities that I can continue to pursue because I am loved and because I am enough.’ That speaks volumes.”
The second panel, moderated by chief business officer Brendan Coolidge Monaghan, featured LVMH employees who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, sharing parts of their personal stories. None works for a beauty brand. Joshua Udashkin, Rimowa’s U.S. managing director, recalled hiding his sexuality at his former job as a corporate attorney. In hindsight, he supposes the firm didn’t have draconian codes, but instead, “it was more me who was wrestling with whether or not my identity being a gay man would reconcile with being successful in business.”
Not so Nicolas Pic, Tag Heuer’s vice president of sales for North America, who lived in Dubai with his longtime partner, now husband, for five years while working for L’Oréal. “What was interesting is that we had a good life there, [but] not as an open gay couple,” Pic said. “This is the biggest difference with being here and living in New York City and in the USA today. We had a good life there. It was comfortable, it was secure, but we couldn’t be ourselves. Especially in the corporate world, it was impossible. When you have to deal with clients, with distributors, it’s just impossible. So we have to lie, we have to pretend. [When referring to your spouse] you say ‘she’ and not ‘he.’ It’s tough, it’s tough.”
Manny Gonzalez, senior director of cultural diversity at Moët Hennessy, noted the importance of obvious support in the workplace. “Having those people that support…sometimes they may not come from your own family. And so when you can point to friends and colleagues, that makes a huge difference,” he said.
Gina Capaz, vice president of business intelligence, also at Moët Hennessy, spoke of finding the love of her life online and adopting a child while working for a different company and living in Florida. The company had no benefit provisions for gay adoption, nor could Capaz list her spouse for insurance coverage. “When you cannot take for granted the things that everybody just automatically gets just because they’re there, you look at the world differently,” she said.
Capaz brought the conversation back to the Stonewall anniversary. The rights which LGBTQ people can now experience along with everybody else are “only possible because people 50 years ago came out, said something, at great risk, not just from the police but from their families, which is even more difficult,” she said. “So I want to make sure we take this moment and don’t forget that the reason we’re all here is because there are people that took those risks to speak up and be who they are and take that risk.” The room burst into applause.
After that came the signing of the U.N. Standards, introduced by a human rights officer of the organization, Fabrice Houdart, who celebrated LVMH, and everyone cheered.
Today is July 1, and Pride month is over. Rainbow flags will be stripped from all those storefronts and corporate headquarters, if they haven’t been already. Company Twitter logos will ditch the multi stripes for their brand color schemes. But, as Capaz noted, the fight for LGBTQ protections must continue — a huge and ongoing process. Specific to the internal nature of this event, Gaemperle said she hopes those 200 employees present, “a drop in the ocean” of LVMH’s overall numbers, share the stories heard and information gleaned.
Management, she said, must be “rigorously disciplined. You can’t have an event like this and then not offer the proper practices in our policies for employees. We must be disciplined about making sure that we don’t only sell a nice story and then not execute it in everyday actions.”
In the end, it’s right, and it’s smart. “We are always linking those initiatives to business dynamics,” Gaemperle said. “We are not in a nonprofit organization; we are part of the leader in luxury. So this has to translate obviously also into pragmatic, economical benefits for the brands. And it does. Because when you have an inclusive culture you have more motivated people, more talent.…The fact is that it’s pretty logical with who we are.”
On the other hand: The mind travels. Thoughts of my Sephora shopping moment reminded me of another memorable LVMH sojourn, this one long ago. (The attitude has changed.) Though the opposite of heartwarming, for anyone with a healthy respect for the absurd, it’s a different kind of fabulous. The object of my spring 2002 lust was a Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs-Julie Verhoeven bag. In Paris for the next round of shows, I felt that very specific twinge of must-have acquisitional fervor when I saw the Louis Vuitton store windows brimming with the bags. I entered and inquired. A woman gave me the once-over and said that right now, the bags were for visual display only, not yet for purchase. And, “When they come in, they’ll be for celebrities. Not for you.” Hand to God.